We are drowning in stories. Ads tell stories. Video games, movies and TV shows, too. A lot of journalism is politically-motivated fiction. And even science is story; authors convince us through compelling narratives, weaving together select findings and literature. We are storytellers. It’s who we are.
I know what it’s like to be totally wrapped up in stories. In my teens and early twenties, I was immersed in them, and to me, they were absolute, unshakeable truth. I debated aggressively with anyone who disagreed with the stories I believed in. I talked at people. I barely listened to anything they had to say, because I was certain they were wrong and I was right.
I had no idea how much I was just parroting whatever I’d heard elsewhere. I was just repeating and regurgitating things with no awareness of just how limited my perspectives were. This pattern continued until I found myself on a mountain in British Columbia on my first silent mindfulness retreat.
Recognizing the Stories We Tell Ourselves
People often think about mindfulness as a relaxation tool, but for me it’s been a vital tool in seeing how the stories in my head have been shaped by others. The more I’ve sat in silence and observed my mind over the past decade, the more I’ve noticed the incredible influence of stories. It was frustrating at first. My mind was constantly thinking, telling incessant half-baked stories about everything. When I tried to pay attention and calm them down, it was completely overwhelming.
Those first few years, I got immediately wrapped up in the desperate need to stop this from happening. I thought the whole point of meditation was to silence my thoughts, and I ended up even more frustrated. Now that I realize the futility of this pursuit, I feel a sense of nostalgia whenever I find myself guiding others who have fallen into this same trap. Stopping your mind from telling stories is like telling a cow not to ‘moo’. Stories are what define us. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “Concrete objects can pull free of the earth more easily than humans can escape humanity.”
The more I became aware of these stories, the more they lost their hold on me. I just couldn’t take them seriously anymore.
With more practice, I slowly became more able to track my thinking mind and stay with it. Sounds like a euphoric moment, but it was more like watching a train wreck. As I binge-watched the stories in my head, I clearly saw echoes of the false narratives I’d been sold. There were ideas about masculinity which justified eating animals, objectifying women, and sabotaging relationships. My thoughts about love and sex took the shape of movies, TV, ads, and porn, and this nonsense certainly wasn’t helping me form lasting relationships.
And that’s not all. I also saw the stories I’d been told about success which had me chasing illusions. I saw stories about other people, which led to selfish and self-defeating behaviour. I had a lot of empty beliefs about what it meant to be a musician, which held me back from enjoying the gift of playing an instrument. The more I became aware of these stories, the more they lost their hold on me. I just couldn’t take them seriously anymore.
The Power of Stories
A well-known metaphor treats the mind as a flowing river. Thoughts flow naturally downstream. In meditation, our goal isn’t to stop the river, but simply to climb up on the shore and observe it. In the attention economy, the water level is rising. Aggressive advertising and exponential technology harvest a huge amount of your mental capacity against your will. And what do you think they’re doing with this stolen mindshare? They’re working new stories into your mind for their own benefit. They’re contributing to the flood.
Stories themselves aren’t a problem. They are the lens through which we see ourselves and the world. Reality is chaotic, but stories make it seem simple and cohesive. They give us a sense of stability and purpose. They guide and inspire us. They make all this complexity feel manageable. Stories help us make sense of a complicated world. Yet stories are not truth, and we’re really bad at telling the difference.
Stories help us make sense of a complicated world. Yet stories are not truth, and we’re really bad at telling the difference.
We have no idea what’s really happening across the street, let alone across the ocean. Yet we latch onto the latest political soundbite or social media story, and hold on to inaccurate perceptions of the world. We know it’s all a lie, yet still we read, share, and repeat. Then we wonder why the other side has it so wrong. Well, the same events can be strung together by those on both sides of an issue into completely different narratives.
Other people are following and believing in different stories, and thus conflict arises. Stories have never portrayed a truly accurate, unbiased picture of anything. But these days, every major organization is spending huge swaths of cash to blur the line between fact and fiction in the fertile soil of your imagination. There’s so much to gain if they can just convince you, and lure you to believe their story. No wonder our signal-to-noise ratio is plummeting.
Even when you know everyone’s trying to convince you, it’s hard not to get sucked in. Every day when I’m reading the news, seeing ads, talking to other people, checking social feeds, or even watching Netflix, I need to constantly remind myself that the actual world is infinitely more complex than these two-dimensional collages.
Yet despite my best efforts, many of these stories slip into my mind and shape how I think. The stories we hear become the stories in our heads. When brands or political campaigns craft a good story, they spin a new truth. That truth gets embedded in our minds and becomes thought. From birth, we’re all completely inundated by external stories and ideologies which become our thoughts. Authenticity is dead.
How Mindfulness Helps us Accept What We Don’t Understand
It really has been the practice of mindfulness which has helped me see this clearly in my own life. And I don’t mean understand it intellectually. I mean, actually see it in my thoughts. Noticing the patterns. Examining my thinking mind and asking the hard questions. And I believe that I have become a better person as a result. I’m much more able to question my own stories, challenge my own beliefs, and this helps me stay open to new perspectives.
Even without the influence of new media, ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers have been writing and speaking about the stories in our heads for thousands of years. They espoused self-knowledge and clarity as key ingredients to a good life. None of them could even imagine a world where our collective conscious minds are being hosted on supercomputers which demand non-stop engagement. None of them could have predicted a life so drenched in stories.
Never have contemplative practices like mindfulness been as necessary for basic survival as they are today. The rivers of our minds aren’t merely flowing anymore. They’re crashing down upon us. We’re getting flooded by a torrent of news, advertising, social media and streaming video every day. We’ve never had to swim this hard just to tread water and take a breath, let alone get up on the riverbank for a clear view from above.
Our brains are built to weave compelling narratives from incomplete information. It’s what we do. We love to feel like we understand everything. But there’s a lot we don’t know. When stories calcify into a sense of objective, infallible truth, we lose our spirit of curiosity and openness. We let ourselves be taken by the current, drawn into whatever ideologies best serve those trying to influence us.
I know it often feels like swimming upstream, but the pursuit of mental clarity has never been so important.
This article was originally published at attentionactivist.com.